Get control over your nerves
Lions, tigers, bears, oh my! What to do when your brain defaults to the worst-case scenario.
As someone who deals with anxiety in the saddle (and out, to be honest), I love connecting with other riders who understand my predicament. Last weekend, I met one such woman during a cow working clinic. She summed up the anxious rider’s state-of-being perfectly:
Outside, calm as a cucumber. Inside, squirrel in traffic.
We had already ridden together for hours, and she seemed like a laid back person. Her horse was quiet, she smiled and participated, and I assumed she wasn’t nervous at all. Meanwhile, she assumed the same thing about me.
Many anxious riders are masters of appearing calm to the outside world. (They aren’t fooling their horses for a second, though.)
Andrea Monsarrat Waldo has a great quote about this is my all-time favorite self-help book, Brain Training for Riders:
In this article, I’ll share three tips that have helped me calm the heck down as I pursue my riding goals and enjoy more quality time with my horse.
Tip #1: Make Friends With Your Lizard Brain
Waldo’s book is all about how to “Tame your lizard brain.” Think of it as the primal side of your brain tasked with keeping you alive every moment of every day.
No wonder it’s not so sure about this whole horse riding thing!
Your lizard brain would much rather you stay home, safely tucked in bed with your dog, eating mac and cheese, and binging Netflix.
(OK, that sounds pretty good to me, too…)
When something makes your lizard brain nervous, it immediately sounds the alarm, twists your stomach into knots, and fills your mind with really scary images designed to make you rethink what you’re doing — or plan to do soon.
Your lizard brain doesn’t know the difference between an emotional risk and a saber-toothed tiger, so new challenges often feel intimidating even if the physical danger is minimal. – Andrea Monsarrat Waldo
Contrary to popular belief, your lizard brain isn’t trying to make you miserable — it’s trying to keep you safe.
So, instead of getting frustrated at yourself for feeling “mentally weak,” “like a basket case,” or “worrying about nothing,” try telling your lizard brain two powerful words: thank you.
Once you acknowledge and appreciate that it has your best interests at heart, you can respectfully tell your lizard brain that, while you appreciate the thought, you’ve got things under control. He can wait in the car, and you’ll be back after your ride.
Principle in practice:
My horse has a lizard brain, too, and it’s also trying to keep him safe. I add levity to our trail rides by having conversations (aloud, if I’m riding solo) with my gelding’s lizard brain:
- Horse: There might be paddle tigers (i.e. ducks) hiding in the creek again!
- Me: It’s possible, but I’ll protect you no matter what we come across today.
- Horse: But, but, but… what if they fly out and try to EAT me?! I’ve heard stories around the paddock…
- Me: I’ll make some noise as we go past the creek so we don’t startle any paddle tigers. But, remember, you’ve got an 1,100-pound advantage over those ducks. They’d have a really hard time eating you.
Having these silly conversations aloud reminds me how irrational 99% of my fears (and my horse’s fears) really are. It’s a fun way to bond with an animal that gets nervous, too, and remind us that we’re going to be just fine!
Want (a lot) more tips for dealing with anxiety? Check out my blog about 33 Things You Can Do Today to Calm Your Riding Nerves Forever.
Tip #2: Stack the Odds in Your Favor
I’m not a gambler by nature, but I do find numbers and data compelling. When I’m feeling anxious, I play one particular stat on repeat in my mind:
You’ve got a 100% success rate at staying alive so far. Those are really good odds that you’ll be fine this time, too.
Think about it. If you walked up to a roulette wheel in a casino and had a 100% lifetime win-rate, you’d confidently place your bet.
Anxious riders are notorious “catastrophizers,” a term I immediately latched onto in Waldo’s book. We’re always tempted to make choices based on worst-case scenarios vs. most likely outcomes.
When you remember that the most likely outcome (by a long shot) is that you’ll be totally fine, you can tell your lizard brain to take a break.
Principle in practice:
It was really hard for me to keep my nerves in check when I started learning to work cattle with my reined cow horse. He knew the job like the back of his hoof, and I knew nothing. He moved SO fast that I was simply holding on for dear life. It was really scary!
After about six months of butterflies in my belly and cold sweat before class, I knew I needed to start telling myself a different narrative.
- Lizard Brain: I can’t believe you’re going to work cows again today. How many times do I have to tell you this is a TERRIBLE idea?!
- Rational Brain: Oh, you again. I appreciate that you’re trying to keep me safe and all, but go take a break for 90 minutes.
- Lizard Brain: No way. Left to your own devices, you’ll die.
- Rational Brain: It may feel that way to you, but I’m actually doing you a favor. I’m learning how to work cattle in the safest way possible. I found an amazing coach and bought this talented and kind-hearted horse. The more I learn, the safer I become. That’s what you want, too, right?
- Lizard Brain: Hmm, yeah.
Once I switched from imagining the worst-case scenario to focusing on my 100% success rate at life, I could focus on how every lesson was actually making me safer — not putting me in more danger.
Tired of riding with your stomach in knots? Check out my blog about 33 Things You Can Do Today to Calm Your Riding Nerves Forever.
Tip #3: Behave Like It’s “Already Well”
One of the most comforting mantras I’ve come up with to manage my anxiety is “Already Well.”
It means shifting your mindset to think about how you’d deal with a particular situation if ‘future you’ appeared and confirmed everything had actually worked out fine.
When I was teaching my cow horse to jump (yeah, you read that right), it was a mental struggle to get myself into the arena before every lesson. He didn’t understand what he was supposed to do, and I was new to jumping, too. His awkward distances, refusals, and “kangaroo jumps” unseated me mentally — and sometimes literally.
One day, I started imagining how I would feel — and how I would ride my horse — if ‘future me’ walked up and told me this lesson actually went fine. I had nothing to be worried about.
Did that mean every jump would be perfect that day? Of course not. Did it mean my lizard brain could stop yelling in my ear about dying? YES.
I could saddle up with confidence that I’d handle whatever happened that day, and my horse and I would come away unscathed and with more knowledge under our belts (girths?).
Principle in practice:
You’re driving to the show grounds with your new horse, and you’re worried about how it’s going to go. As you idle at a stop light, imagine ‘future you’ opening the passenger door and sliding into the truck for a quick chat.
- Future Me: Hey there.
- Present Me: You look really familiar…
- Future Me: Yeah, I hear that a lot. Listen, you seem pretty worried about the show today.
- Present Me: I’ve got a really bad feeling about it. I’m pretty sure my horse is going to be really spooky and buck me off. I’ll probably get hurt and not be able to ride for months. Honestly, I think I should turn around and go back home…
- Future Me: It’s understandable to be nervous, but guess what?
- Present Me: (Gulps) What?
- Future Me: This is actually going to be fine — better than fine, in fact! Your horse is going to be a bit spooky at a few of the jumps, but you have the skills to handle it. And you do. You ride really well, give him confidence, and the two of you have a lot of fun. When you get back to the barn later, you’ll be really glad you did this show.
- Present Me: Really? Are you sure?
- Future Me: Yep.
- Present Me: [Let’s out a deep breath.] That’s really good to know. Now I can just go and enjoy myself!
- Future Me: The light just turned green, so off you go!
Change the rules of the game
Again, these conversations may seem silly — but they work. If you were guaranteed that [insert experience] worked out fine, how would that change your mental state going into it? How would you ride your horse? What decisions would you make?
Next time you’re nervous about a ride, try skipping all the mental drama and living in the moment as if you already knew things would work out in your favor. It’s a game changer.
If “just breathe” isn’t cutting it, read 33 Things You Can Do Today to Calm Your Riding Nerves Forever.
Bottom Line: Be Kind to Yourself
Anxious riders are really good at beating themselves up for feeling nervous. That’s unnecessary and unhelpful.
Portions of our brains are simply wired to worry, and that’s OK. Our lizard brains take their jobs very seriously, and that’s a good thing.
But that doesn’t mean you have to exist in a swirl of anxiety 24/7/365. It may be more challenging for us to ride worry-free, but it is possible. Believe it’s possible? That’s step one.
While you may have to work harder than others to enjoy your horse time, the reward will be that much richer for the struggle.
You’ve got this!
Managing your anxiety starts with being honest about it. Take our fun quiz to find out What Type of Nervous Nelly You Are around horses.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do I get over my horse riding nerves?
In order to get over nervousness associated with riding horses, it is important to understand the root cause of the nervousness. When did you begin experiencing the issue? Is it associated with a certain activity, or does any time in the saddle induce nervousness?
It is industry best practice to encourage a rider to get back on the horse after a fall—the reasoning behind this is sound. The longer you wait to confront your fears, the greater they can become.
That said, if medical attention is required, please don’t get back on!
Once you understand the root of the issue, you can work to resolve it. Enlisting the help of a trainer can be hugely beneficial in overcoming nerves and increasing confidence. For example, an otherwise confident rider may get nervous when jumping. For that reason, they should only jump with a trainer’s supervision. Some riders only get nervous when it comes to competition. Other riders may have anxiety about any time spent in the saddle.
In some cases, it may be a mismatch between horse and rider—some riders prefer a more mellow horse. Horses can sense human emotions; a nervous rider on a high-strung horse can be an awful combination. In those cases, the best outcome for horse and rider might be new partners for both.
Why am I scared to ride my horse?
There are many reasons that may contribute to someone being afraid to ride their horse. Generally, a fall or other scary situation, is the culprit. In some cases, it is best to get right back on after a fall. Waiting can cause the fear to grow, until it may become insurmountable. Some people just have a natural fear of horses—while they may overcome the fear, being around horses may never be truly comfortable. Other riders may not be matched with the right horse.
A example from Susanna:
For example, my first horse was an Appendix quarter horse who needed an active, strong rider. The moment he sensed you weren’t giving him your full attention, he’d be up to no good (usually a buck). He turned me into a nervous rider that didn’t love time in the saddle anymore.
I started working with a trainer, who identified that we just weren’t a good match for each other. I sold him and got a new, mellower horse that was a better fit for my personality. We went on to be very successful in the show pen.
Now, I know I match best with a mellower horse. Some riders thrive on high-strung horses; I am not one of them. It is important to recognize the qualities you need in an equine partner—it’s okay to realize when something isn’t a good fit.
How do you gain confidence when riding a horse?
You know the saying “Practice makes perfect?” It’s pretty accurate. To become a more confident rider, you need to be sure in what you are doing and know how to react to any given situation.
It takes time and experience to learn how to read equine behavior, and how your specific horse may react to a variety of stimuli. The more opportunities you have in uncertain situations, the better prepared you will be to handle them.
It is very helpful to work with a professional, such as a trainer, to help build confidence, especially when learning something new. Remember that your horse can pick up on your emotions—if you are confident, your horse will be as well.
What are some tips for overcoming horse riding anxiety?
First, understand where your anxiety is coming from. Next, talk to someone about it! Anxiety about horseback riding isn’t unusual. Many of us experience it when competing, learning something new, or even learning the same thing, but from a different trainer or on a different horse.
A example from Susanna:
Personally, I have anxiety when showing. I work really hard to be able to afford to show; when I do, I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well, which creates anxiety. I’ve learned different techniques to help me cope.
First, I follow a specific routine to make sure I’m not rushing to my class. I want to feel that I have had adequate prep time to warm up my horse and get him where he needs to be. Second, I over-prepare. I practice patterns in advance, and mentally envision riding them over and over in my head, so they become second nature. Third, I try to judge myself against previous performances instead of a particular outcome.
I can’t control who the judge is, or who my competition is on any given day is. I can set reasonable goals, control my amount of preparation, and judge myself on how I did in comparison to previous events. Perfection is likely not achievable, but measuring progress helps me feel that I’m reaching my goals.
How do you relax before horse riding?
Don’t underestimate the power of positive thinking. Horses can pick up on our emotions—if you arrive at the barn with negative energy, it’s likely that will affect your ride. If you’ve had a bad day, try to leave it at the door. Spend extra time grooming or doing groundwork to get yourself to a better place mentally before getting on your horse. Taking a few minutes to envision a great ride in your mind can help set the tone for a positive experience.
Set realistic goals, and read your horse—sometimes, horses can have a bad day, too. If your horse isn’t giving 100% on a given day, scale back what you ask for to something easier that you can both accomplish. Always end on a good note and leave something to look forward to on the next ride!
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- What Are Some Ways to Gain Confidence Horseback Riding
- Coming Back From a Bad Fall: Day by Day Vlogs
- Favorite Fall in 30 Years: Equestrian Hit Air Review
- Scared to Ride Your Horse? Here’s How to Get Your Mojo Back
- Quiz: What Type of Nervous Nelly You Are